J.S. Bach: A Musician—and a Lover of Lists!

by R. Reed Lessing


We seldom like them, or pay attention to them, even in everyday life. In our devotional life, they’re often the part of the Bible we pay little attention to—or skip entirely.

0309jsbachstory1.jpgYet J.S. Bach, one of the great composers of church music and a leading figure of western music and art, found great inspiration in an Old Testament list.

The list in question is found in 1 Chronicles, where in 25:1 the author tells us: “David, together with the commanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals. Here is the list of the men who performed this service” (NIV).

And the rest of the chapter is a list of 288 Levitical musicians.

Yes, biblical narratives are exciting. So are epistles, parables, psalms, and proverbs. But 1 Chronicles 25 is a list. And as I’ve said, most everyone believes it’s best to avoid lists, shun lists, and, above all, never write an article on lists!

But if you love lists (like me), then in 1 Chronicles you’ve come to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—as Bach discovered! The book begins with nine chapters of lists, from Adam in 1:1 to Azel in 9:44. Chapter 11 lists David’s mighty men. In subsequent chapters there are lists of Gadites who join David’s forces, Levites who bring the Lord’s ark into Jerusalem, David’s victories, and priestly divisions.

And how do we know the Chronicles list inspired Bach?

You see, in Bach’s three-volume Calov Bible of 1733, which are the only books of any sort from Bach’s library to have survived to this day, this master musician writes in the margins of 1 Chronicles 25 these words: “This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing church music.”

Bach also underlines these comments on verse 1: “The musicians are to express the Word of God in spiritual songs and psalms, sing them in the temple, and at the same time play with instruments.”

In all likelihood, Bach was drawn to 1 Chronicles 25 because in this chapter the Levitical musicians are described not only as using instruments, but also as singers who are described in prophetic terms. Verses 1, 2, and 3 use the verb “to prophesy,” while verse 5 employs the verb “to prophetically see a vision.” These words indicate that, by means ofinstrumental music, the Lord prophetically proclaimed His Word to Israel. 1 Chronicles 25 is therefore “the true foundation of all God-pleasing church music” because it states that the role of instrumental hymnody and liturgy is to proclaim God’s all-powerful Word.

And so J.S. Bach, who has been called “the classic Lutheran layman,” “a sign of God,” “the Preacher,” “the Teacher,” “the Theologian,” “the first great German voice since Luther,” and of course, “the Fifth Evangelist,” delights in 1 Chronicles 25, which is a list of Levitical musicians who probably don’t mean a lot to us.

But if you were in the heat of the battle in ancient Israel this list meant everything!

War and More War

Let me explain. In 1 and 2 Chronicles “wars and rumors of wars” abound. For example, Pharaoh Shishak attacks Jerusalem, Judah attacks Ramoth Gilead, and Josiah attacks Pharaoh Neco. The Judean kings Asa, Jehoram, Uzziah, and Hezekiah all were skilled in fortifying cities, and they provided armor, bows, helmets, shields, spears, and slingshots for their army. But Israel’s chief weapon of warfare was “God-pleasing church music.”

The events in 2 Chronicles 20 are instructive. In this chapter, Jehoshaphat gains a great victory over the Ammonites, Edomites, and Moabites. But how does he do it? First a Levitical singer named Jahaziel son of Zechariah prophesies victory. Next some Levites from the Kohathites and Korahites stand up and sing praises to the Lord. Then the climactic words of 2 Chron. 20:21: “Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise Him for the splendor of His holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying, ‘Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for His loyal-love endures forever.’”

Here Ps. 149:6 comes up huge: “The praises of God are in their mouths like a double-edged sword in their hands.” When the praises of God are placed in our mouths, they— like a double-edged sword—“silence the foe and the avenger” (Ps. 8:2 NIV). When biblical truth and doctrine are set to music they become devotional, memorable, teachable, and transformational! “God-pleasing church music” in our sanctuaries and balconies, entering our ears and into our hearts, equips us to be armed and dangerous!

Our Battle Today

In “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Martin Luther (another great church musician) states that we don’t fight Ammonites, Edomites, and Moabites. Rather our battle is with “the old evil foe, [who] now means deadly woe; deep guile and great might are his dread arms in fight; on earth is not his equal.”

Satan “comes to steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10). We see him in our rearview mirror. We feel his hot breath on our neck. We hear his hellish scream in our hearts.

As Tempter, he says, “Whatever it is you want to do,just do it. Have some anger floating around? Act it out. Have some gossip? Let it fly! Have some sexual fantasies?Go ahead, full throttle!”

As Deceiver he continues with these words, “There are no consequences, no limits, and no responsibilities. Ready, set, go!”

When we give in to these temptations and deceptions, then as Accuser he plants his foot on our necks, saying, “Now that you have done this, drank this, said this, seen this, thought this, God is finished with you!”

But we have a list, a list of church musicians who as the Lord’s prophets place “the praises of God in our mouths like a double-edged sword in our hands.”

Exhibit A: Your church’s bulletin from last Sunday. It probably lists the organist, the choir director, the soloist, and perhaps even the cantor. Just a list? No way! The musicians sing and ring, pray and praise with the Word of God to prepare the saints for battle. The poetry, coupled with doxology, delivers the victory of Israel’s greatest Singer who also sings in the heat of the battle.

Matt. 26:30 states, “When they had sung a hymn they went out to the Mount of Olives.” Look! The Son of Man is about to be betrayed by a kiss. And then, in staccato-like fashion, He is arrested, condemned, and crucified. Romans and Jews alike try to destroy the Song. But coming forth from the tomb the Song sings on! Jesus the Nazarene is crucified, yet risen indeed! “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for His loyal-love endures forever!”

So Leipzig’s greatest cantor, the composer of the Passion According to St. Matthew, the Passion According to St. John, the B Minor Mass, and numerous cantatas, the one who proclaims the Father’s victorious love for us in Jesus with the most astonishing wealth of musical texture and color, this J.S. Bach bequeaths to us in 1 Chronicles 25 a list of Levitical musicians.

Just a list?


For the baptized and the bodied and the bloodied, for those of us who know what it’s like to be tempted, deceived, and accused; for those of us in the heat of the battle, a list of church musicians who “express the Word of God in spiritual songs and psalms” means . . . why it means everything!


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